"Bo Burnham: Inside" is auteur-level genius
The comedy-musician's latest work paves a new path for stand-up specials.
A keyboard, a guitar, some lights, a camera. In “Bo Burnham: Inside,” these everyday items are the comedy-musician’s lifelines, refillable oxygen tanks in an ocean of nihilism. Like so many of us, Burnham spent the majority of 2020 just trying to keep his mind occupied while trapped in the confines of his home. He wrote songs, jokes, and at one point decided to film a brand-new stand-up special for Netflix. Yet, despite the hilarity of his hooky jingles and memorable punchlines, it’s Burnham’s beautifully transparent approach to documenting his own spiraling mental health that makes “Inside” so much more than a simple stand-up routine. This is a comedy special unlike any other because it has a single active goal: to find a silver lining somewhere in the madness of everyday life.
Those familiar with Burnham’s previous comedy specials ("Words, Words, Words" (2010), "Make Happy" (2016)) know that his sing-songy deliveries and flashing rainbow backdrops are all used to inject irony and lightheartedness into his criticisms of modern-day society. He’s kind of like a one-man-band Sesame Street special, but for adults. Given that the world effectively shut down for a year, many of us turned our full attention to the artificial vibrance of social media – the consequences of which being one of Burnham’s favored topics to sing about. Told in the forms of 90s workout anthems, to jazz, to R&B, and contemporary pop, the genres and lyrics coalesce into memorable and hilarious works of art. Some of my favorites have to be “White Woman’s Instagram” and “FaceTime with My Mom” – both of which I’ve been humming in the shower for the past three days.
But the genius of Bo Burnham’s comedy goes beyond the punchline; everything he comes up with has a deeper meaning – sometimes subtle, and sometimes not. That layered writing is just as present in his new special as it is in all of his previous works. This time around, his central question is whether or not humor can exist at a time like this, and he even takes jabs at comedians who think they can heal the world with a single joke. This is where “Inside” steps away from the traditional stand-up formula and paves its own path, allowing that line between realism and performative art to blur.
This is both a final film and a making-of wrapped up into one experience. We watch as his passion project becomes his burden, and then a demon that he can’t escape from. The small room transitions from a cozy studio to a prison cell, and although we as the viewer know that there is light at the end of the Covid tunnel, you can't help but worry about the comedian losing himself to his own crumbling mind. And through the self-loathing we watch him go through, he keeps the jokes coming, further nailing in the point that as long we're steadily laughing - scratch that, as long as we're paying attention - his job as a comedian is done. It's a powerful and thought-provoking message, and when you realize that his pain is our amusement, it only serves to make the final moments of the film that much more surreal and raw.
Unlike live stand-up specials, “Inside” was recorded with no audience, no crew, and with no helping hands. Everything, from the writing, the shooting, the editing – all of it was created by the star of the show. Instead of hiding the bad takes and shortcomings through carefully timed edits, Burnham allows us to watch him mess up and trip over himself. At first these behind-the-curtain shots feel more like Easter Eggs, left in almost by mistake than as a way to convey a deeper meaning. However, as these flashes grow longer and more frequent, the true state of his mental health takes the spotlight. You begin to focus less on the actual content and more on Burnham as a creative mind, your nails bursting through the skin of your palm as you hope he can pull off this next attempt.
And maybe my own creative struggles make me biased, or maybe I’m planting myself too firmly in his shoes, but after watching "Inside" twice now, I feel truly moved by this unique approach to filmmaking. Being in that claustrophobic studio feels like such an invasion of privacy on my part, and to watch such a talented man struggle with his creative stability really struck me. At one point or another, we all struggle to find our purpose, and to join Burnham on his own journey of self-discovery is something I wholeheartedly appreciate. His personal influence over his work excels him far beyond the title of filmmaker. Burnham is an auteur.
- Final Thoughts -
“Inside” is the most unique and thought-provoking stand-up special I’ve seen to date. From the genuinely comedic songs with ear-wormy melodies, to the innovative lighting and makeshift set design, every moment feels like a highly produced film even though it was born at the hands of a single person in a tiny room. And most profoundly, these do-it-yourself elements are connected by a very real, very raw look at a mind of a struggling artist that left me feeling utterly transfixed on the screen. Simply put, it is a masterpiece and I cannot recommend it enough.
("Inside" image courtesy of Netflix)